"... How did you do it?" Elrond found himself asking, standing beside Bilbo with his elbows resting on a parapet, an odd and pensive mood taking hold of him. His friend, so much more frail now, so aged and trembling and fragile, looked up at him in startlement.
"I'm sorry?" Bilbo asked, his expression creasing in concern as he looked up at him, all the warmth and courage of a stout little spirit coming to the fore as he took in the shadow in Elrond's eyes, the strange darkness that had come upon him. "I'm afraid ... I'm afraid I don't know what you mean."
Elrond shook his head, turning back to look once more out over the moonlit vale beneath them, to cast his eyes out along the path so recently traced by the Fellowship. A faint anger stirred within him, moved by memories that had not raised themselves in years, and a distant, troubled confusion stirred beside it. The echoes of a past long buried, and of a shadow that had raised itself again, drawing ancient betrayals behind it. Here, in the privacy and solace of Bilbo's company, where none should see the shadow come upon him, he found himself cast adrift by those echoes, and only Bilbo's pale concern to tether him still.
It wasn't fair. Not to ask this, not to bring these shadows up and tangle them about this frail creature so recently brought free of them. It wasn't fair to ask this of Bilbo, of his friend who grew so visibly older and more fragile every day. There were shadows enough these days, a mass of them to south to swallow all they loved between them, without drawing forth old ones once again.
Not fair, no. Nothing Bilbo deserved. And yet, with the shadow come upon him, Elrond could not help but ask.
"The Ring," he explained quietly, while Bilbo silently placed a careful hand upon his arm, while his friend drifted close in bewildered concern. "The one you gave to your nephew. I have wondered ... Forgive me, my friend. But I have wondered how you managed that."
Bilbo blinked, his face creasing in a startled frown. Not in anger, but in a worried confusion, bewildered as to how so innocuous a question could seemingly draw so terrible a mood along with it. As evil as he knew the Ring to be, as unnatural as he had felt beneath its pall of longevity, Bilbo had never truly understood that the Ring was important. Sixty years in its possession, sixty years beneath its touch, and until the very end Bilbo had never felt more than a vague possessiveness towards it. It had been a tool and a trinket and a keepsake to him, an evil little curiosity that he had held onto as much, Elrond thought, from nostalgia for the quest that had brought it to him as from any malevolent influence from the Ring itself. Even still, even now, having watched his family march off into unimaginable danger for the sake of destroying it, Bilbo didn't seem to fully understand why the Ring, in itself, could be so important.
And it was that, more than anything, that moved Elrond to ask. It was that the moved him, with the shadows of Isildur's betrayal awoken within him once more, to turn to the hobbit at his side, and ask how he could hold something so terrible so very, very lightly.
"It desires to be used," he said, as he looked into Bilbo's eyes and sought some glimmer of understanding there. "It draws upon all the darkest desires of those who hold it, and uses them to shape them to its will. It wants, and in wanting forces those around it to want as well. You know this. You have felt it. And yet ... yet when the time came, though you knew that you would fade in its absence and grow older, still you gave it up. You surrendered possession, despite all its urgings, and passed it on."
He paused, a pale confusion marring his own features, a wonder and a fear and a desperate need to understand. In the memory of old betrayals, in the shadow of those to come, Elrond needed, as never before, to understand this. To know the reasons why. To know, once and for all, why his trust had been misplaced, all those many, many years ago.
"... I would know why," he said at last, a strange smile upon his lips, an odd and distant grief. Bilbo looked at him, his love and his friendship written clear in his face, and Elrond found a smile. "If you will tell me, my friend, I would know how you found yourself capable of this. I would know ... I would know why."
Bilbo bit his lip, the oddest expression moving across his features, something Elrond did not manage to grasp in time. Bilbo winced, his aging frame curling in on itself a little, and with a gentle little pat at Elrond's arm the hobbit pulled back and turned to pace around the balcony. Short, stiff little steps, as he tapped his lips agitatedly in thought. Elrond watched him, thinking his gaze perhaps too heavy on those thoughtful shoulders, but could not find it within himself to turn away. Not yet. Not here, with these shadows and these fears upon him.
Unbidden, though, the sight lifted something within him. Unbidden, as Bilbo paced and visibly struggled to shape his answer, Elrond felt his mouth lift in a clearer and more genuine sort of smile.
There were times, he thought, when it was so very easy to see why Olórin favoured hobbits so. There were times it was so easy to see the brightness of them.
"I don't know how to answer that," Bilbo said at last, turning abruptly to face him and sketching a brief, angry motion in the air between them. "I don't know what answers you want. I don't know what answers you need."
He looked frustrated, Elrond realised. Playing riddles in the dark with ancient things, trying to give them the answers they desired. He looked ... he looked old. Old and tired as only a mortal could look, frail beneath the age that had, after long deferral, seized so violently upon him. Bilbo looked at him, tired and sad and trying, perhaps, to be gentle with one who should know so much better than him, and it stirred a fondness in Elrond's breast that no amount of shadow could overpower. A brightness no past betrayal could overcome.
"I need the truth," he said softly, gentle in his turn. "I need whatever answers you possess, my friend, for I have none." He smiled, wry and crooked. "Answer me as best you can, Bilbo. I promise it shall suffice."
Bilbo exhaled, a sigh of pain that had no origin Elrond could see. He sighed, and moved closer once again, drifted back to Elrond's side and tucked himself against him once again. Elrond allowed it, a touch bemused, and held the hobbit close by pure instinct.
"... It wasn't important," Bilbo said, staring more at his gnarled hands than at anything else, stiff and careful as he tried to explain. "I mean ... Look. Just because a thing might want something, doesn't mean it deserves to get it. And just because a person might want a thing, doesn't mean they ought to have it either. A thing is just a thing. It doesn't ... It doesn't mean anything. It's not important. Do you follow me?"
He looked up, face twisted in an old and desperate sort of pain, and Elrond stared at him. Bewildered in his turn, perhaps, stricken by a shadow that had stolen across his friend without his knowing. Bilbo shrugged, pained and agitated, and tried so very hard to explain.
"I accused Gandalf of trying to steal from me, when he asked," he whispered, shoulders hunched and close against Elrond's side. "I shouldn't have. Of course not. I don't know what came over me. Or ... Or no, I suppose I do. I suppose I know exactly. And that's ... that's why. Because he wasn't a thief. He wasn't trying to rob me, any more than Frodo was. He was trying to help me. He was my friend, and he asked me to let it go, and you shouldn't ... You mustn't ever choose a trinket above your friends. No matter what it wants, no matter how wicked and lovely and important it is. There's nothing worth that. I remember that. There is nothing, no Ring or jewel or stone ..."
He trailed off, his voice snapping beneath the word, and when he looked up the smile he wore was sixty years old. The grief in it, and pain, was as fresh as it had been six decades before, as brightly and terribly clear, and in that moment Elrond remembered too. He remembered the shadows stirred by Gimli's presence, and Glóin's, remembered the echoes that had been woken inside his friend.
He remembered, abruptly, that Bilbo had had an Isildur too. That Bilbo had stood upon another parapet, beside a king who had been his friend, and implored him to make a different choice. That Bilbo, even as Elrond thousands of years before him, had begged his friend to cast aside a treasure's influence, to turn away from a dark desire and preserve the safety of the kingdom they had only just won back. Elrond remembered that Bilbo had stood before a friend lost in a treasure's thrall, and Bilbo had asked, and Bilbo, in the end, had failed. Had betrayed and been betrayed in turn, and forced to watch as all fell to ruin about him.
Bilbo, even as Elrond, had seen the price of a treasure's love, had knelt in the blood and the fire and the loss sown behind it. And when the echo came, sixty years later, when the most powerful treasure of all had come and cast its pall over him, when a desperate friend had stood there and begged him in his turn to let it go ...
Bilbo had answered. Out of love and memory and grief, for all he knew it would kill him, Bilbo had let go the Ring of Power. Because his friend had asked him to. For no better reason than that. Needing no better reason than that.
Elrond took a startled breath, deep and almost burning, and stared down at the friend against his side, at the shadows in Bilbo's eyes that so closely echoed the shadows in his own. Elrond looked at him, at the age and the grief and the strange little smile upon his features, and felt, for the first time in this War, a bloom of something inside him. Something that lifted the pall of ancient shadows, that drew him forward in spite of the encroaching darkness, and gave him hope. Something that showed him a brightness not even the coming War could extinguish.
A love, he thought. The warmth and friendship of a stout little spirit, who had proven so much wiser than the ancient beings around him, who had proven so very worthy of trust. Standing beside Bilbo on a parapet, in the shadows and the moonlight, Elrond found an answer that all his thousands of years had never shown him.
"It wasn't important," Bilbo told him softly, watching him with eyes that seemed older than his mere one hundred and something years. Seeing the brightness, perhaps, where before there had been a shadow. "The Ring. It wasn't important enough to keep, not when it was so much more important to let it go." He twitched, a rueful little shrug. "However helpful an answer that may be ..."
Elrond laughed, bright as moonlight, and hugged him close in answer. The tired and bitter Lord of Imladris, and his weary, fading hobbit companion. For a moment as all their shadows faded behind them, the memories of all their betrayals, Elrond held Bilbo close against his side, and found it in himself to laugh.
"It will do," he said, with a soft and deep sincerity. "Bilbo, my friend ... I think it shall suffice."